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Shipping Canal: Houston Ship Channel

Posted in Shipping Canal - 17 May 2021, 3:28 PM

Houston Ship Channel started as a natural bay known as the Buffalo Bayou that was connected to Galveston. Circa 1890s, cargos from and to the city needed to be transported by barges before they could get onto the vessels at Galveston Bay. As the traffic increased, Houston’s need for a deep-water ship channel started to become an urgency.

It was not until 1910 when the Harris County residents agreed to share funds to dredge the ship channel to a depth of 25 feet. Following the dredging, occasional increases in the channel’s depth and width were made.

●       1922 – Houston Ship Channel

WWI triggered the use of the ship channel, especially after the discovery of oil at Spindletop and increasing traffic of other commodities. The United States Army Corps of Engineers added the width of the channel from 25 to 30 feet.

●       1935 – Houston Ship Channel

The project started in 1933 initiated by the United States Department of War. The Galveston Bay section was widened from 250 to 400 feet, and the depth was increased from 30 to 34 feet.

Currently, the Houston Ship Channel is 45 feet in depth, widened to 530 feet through Galveston Bay, and stretched 50 miles in length. The major point in the channel is the Turning Basin, which is now a part of Harrisburg and became a navigational head of the channel.

Traffic in Houston Ship Channel

As one of the busiest seaports in the world, most of the ports in the Houston Ship Channel are managed by the Port of Houston Authority. It manages major public terminals, including the Turning Basin, Barbours Cut, and Bayport. The channel handles more than 200 million tons of cargo annually, with more than 200 public and private terminals serving.

The decision made over a century ago had been proven right. The channel is now a vital facility for local, state, and national economic growth. Among the commodities moved in and out of the channel are plastics, cotton, mineral, petrochemicals, machinery, construction materials, steel & metals, furniture, and retail goods.

The Discovery of Oil in Texas

Initially, cotton was the first main commodity circulating from the channel—making Houston the major cotton port in the United States.  However, entering the twentieth century, the discovery of oil at Spindletop, Texas, had increased the traffic throughout the ship channel. In the early decades, oil refineries and petrochemical industries started to operate, which then prompted more activities around the channel.

The heavy traffic surrounding the 50-miles long ship channel was not always faultless. In March 2014, two ships collided. In which one of them was carrying gallons of marine fuel, causing it to leak into Galveston Bay.

Latest Project from Port of Houston Authority

The ever-expanding ship channel has also been sparking criticism regarding the traffic’s impact on the air and water condition, as well as the pollution for the area surrounding the channel. The Port of Houston Authority answered this criticism by creating mitigation responsibilities, making salt marshes and bird islands working as conserving ecosystems.

Recently, the breaking ground for the next channel dredging was held in May 2021. The Port of Houston Authority has been planning for this project for nearly a decade. The channel will be widened to 700 feet and deepened to 45 feet at the upstream segments. The project will also feature environmental concerns and safety measurements.

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